Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature that celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
Erica Walker Adams is a singular talent with a fascinating hybrid of interests and opinions. Her book, The Mutation of Fortune, available from The Green Lantern Press, is a series of related tales that infuse fairy-tale archetypes with new energy and focus on a refreshingly capable young female protagonist. In addition to her ongoing work on a follow-up book, Adams offers Tarot card readings and serves as the co-host of Tarot social central. This week, Westword caught up with Adams to discuss her authorial influences, her first exposure to Tarot and why she believes in faeries.
Westword: You've written a book of updated fairy tales. What do you think made you respond to fairy tales enough to want to create your own?
Erica Walker Adams: I think it was first it was just how creepy they are, and then the language that's used is so great. My favorite fairy tale is probably "The Juniper Tree" which is in the collected works of the Brother's Grimm. In that story, the step mother kills her step son, of course, because it's not a fairy tale unless children die. Then she convinces the boy's sister that she's guilty for the murder, which gives it this terrible element of psychological damage and then they end up taking his body, stripping the flesh from his bone and turning the flesh into puddings. Puddings, written plural like that, which is beautiful.
If you can only make one pudding out of a kid, you're just not using your resources efficiently. Yeah, and they're puddings salted with her tears. I think it speaks to all the damage you go through in childhood, and how they perpetuate through adulthood and can become larger than life. Fairy tales give us a symbolic language for our psychological realities, which is something we really need. When I'm writing my stories, I think of it in terms of everything going on in my head is being explained in this other world, happening in a symbolic way.
I think fairy tales give us a way of explaining and analyzing our elemental fears. Dark forests, abandonment, being eaten.
Totally. Like if you're different, and you feel ostracized from the world, like you have no community, feel like you don't belong where you are, that explains the whole evil stepmother paradigm, and also the longing for supernatural help. I think behind the larger story -- and this might sound cliché-- but it's like The Hero's Journey, which we are all undergoing all the time. We think of our lives in terms of constantly having all these transformative experiences and recognizing things as more meaningful than we initially believe them to be then we become the protagonists in our own lives.
Joseph Campbell comes up in a lot of these interviews. He really nailed it. Anyone trying to put together the blueprints of a narrative should read some Campbell.
I read tarot, that's one of my things, and it has a really similar principle behind it. You ask, who am I, where am I at and what am I doing that's blocking the energies I want to come to me? When someone comes in for a reading, I ask them what they want to to manifest. I tell them that they're living a story that they're allowing themselves to be trapped in, and they're most just unconscious to it, so when they come see me they're looking to wake up.
When did your interest in Tarot start?
When I was about fourteen. That was in the heyday of America Online, and I was so into computers. I was a goth, too, so that also lent itself to more pagan sensibilities, as it were. I got a Tarot deck but I was raised Catholic so I guiltily threw it away because I thought they could be evil. Then I got another deck when I was twenty and I gave it a more serious try and I just thought, "This is great, there are so many answers in the cards. Everything is in the cards and there's nothing scary at all." I think the only thing that should be prohibited with Tarot is telling people that they don't have free will. People have the opportunity to change their outcomes whenever they want.
How much credit do you give to the psychosomatic in your readings? Do you get people who are so desperate for answers that they're more suggestible?
I think it's all about the process. I'll generally ask a lot of questions and try not to come up with any conclusions for people or steer them one way or another. If someone wants to make a conclusion themselves about how something is affecting them, I'll describe the pattern of energy that I see and ask them if they see it in their life and it might make them think about a new aspect of their life in a new way. Everyone connects with different cards.
How did you learn how to do readings?
I read a lot of books about tarot and my friend and roommate in college was a reader. Do you remember any particularly helpful titles?
I love Rachel Pollack; she does 78 Degrees of Wisdom. She's amazing. I would say she's probably my favorite writer. She writes science fiction novels as well, and she wrote this book called God, Mother, Night, where Death is personified by the woman who has a gang of redheaded motorcycle babes. It's interesting, because I remember I read that book as a teenager and thinking it was amazing before I realized she was an expert on the Tarot. I also just pulled a card every day and studied what it meant and tried to be sensitive to whatever energy was on the card that day. I'm part of the Denver Tarot meet-up group, too.
I assume you've strayed from the Mother Church these days?
Totally. I think now the Devil or any of the dark forces they warn you about is just a part of our subconscious that we are afraid to look at. So nothing like that is scary to me anymore. I'm constantly wondering,"How can I bust open my paradigm? How can I expand my consciousness, how can the world continue to surprise me?" That's really exciting to me; more exciting than scary. Scary movies still get me every time, though. I watched a lot of scary movies as a kid and I think it might have warped me a bit.
Seeing as I opened this interview with a joke about kid pudding, I doubt it will surprise you that I was similarly warped. I've noticed that a lot of religious people love horror. I think it's partly because it reaffirms their Manichean point of view. Catholics are often the heroes, especially in tales of demonic possession. At any rate, where do you think that longing to expand your consciousness arises from? Was there anything in particular that you read and remember as an influence?
I read a lot of wonderful books as a child. I loved Chronicles of Narnia. The Magician's Nephew was my favorite one. Remember that one?
Yeah, that's the prequel to the whole series.
They go to this secret place in his Uncle's attic, and they find those rings, and Narnia is created. I think just the sense that there's a world outside of what everyone says there is really stayed with me. I like that the kids in the story could access that world, and it's not just black and white. It's not only God the Father and Jesus who get to hang out there.
Well there's Aslan. He's basically Jesus, but he's also a lion who'll let you ride on his back.
Yeah, he gets to hang out there, too, but it's also my secret discovery, a portal hidden within our own world..
So was fantasy a big genre for you going forward?
I really like fantasy, but there are a lot of the classics that I haven't read. I really liked poetry growing up, too, and then when I was sixteen or seventeen I read Neverwhere and got super into Neil Gaiman.
Did you read Sandman?
The whole series. I dressed up as Delirium for Halloween one year. That was really fun; I had these fairy wings. Since I was little, I've had an irrational but un-abiding belief in faeries, in little people manipulating things in the background with an agenda that has nothing to do with big people. It's a little silly, but I have always had this sense that I just knew they were real.
As far as I'm concerned, thinking that faeries are real is just as logical as any other religious belief. I should probably ask some book-clubbier questions. For instance, do you have any books that you like to recommend to friends?
My favorite book is The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington. She was a surrealist painter, but she was also a great writer. I love The Way Through Doors, by Jesse Ball, who was my professor at the Art Institute. There's a collection of women's journals called Ariadne's Thread that's pretty amazing. I also like Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli. I find myself returning to those a lot. Whenever I recommend books, I just think it's important for people to read anything that helps them think outside the box and to imagine hope and possibility and to value things outside of a capitalistic mindset. I've also been reading a lot of Octavia Butler lately.
I love Octavia Butler!
I'm really into her writing and I would suggest her books to anyone.
Octavia Butler is great because she has these elaborate sci-fi conceits but her writing is so grounded and earthy. Did you read Wild Seed?
With the shape-shifting? I love that one. Yeah, her prose is just so evocative that it makes changing into a dolphin and having dolphin thoughts seem like the most natural thing in the world. It's sensuous in a way that I'm not sure a man is capable of recreating.
Absolutely. There's a book called the Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and it's all about how we're disconnected from our senses and about reclaiming our sensuality. It's not fiction, but it's one of my favorites. In terms of connecting to history of place, which is also a theme running through Wild Seed, it's called Wisdom Sits in Places, and it's about Apache place names. It's really cool.
Do you remember any literary mentors who introduced you to books you ended up loving?
I had a friend, her name is Lillian and she introduced me to so much. The next book that I write will be dedicated to her. She completely changed my life. When I was only fourteen she introduced me to Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, which is this book about a girl who gets stigmata. She introduced me to Margaret Atwood and Tori Amos who shaped my existence forever.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
Well, Lucie Brock-Boido is probably my favorite living poet. But of course, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, how could they not be? They're such geniuses. Anne Sexton did a bunch of stuff with fairy tales, too.
You mention a lot of women writers. That's kind of refreshing because literature can often seem like a pantheon of dead white men. Do you think there's a reason that you identify with female authors beyond sharing a gender?
I want to be very careful about how I say this.
It's okay, I wasn't that careful with how I asked the question.
I generally find that I get more pleasure out of reading books written by women. I'm not sure entirely why, there's probably some reason, but I've never worked it out. It's just something that I enjoy. This year, I've probably read thrty books by women and maybe three that were written by men. I like plenty of male writers, and I mentioned a few, but I don't know why I don't read them more. I think there's something about having lived through the experience of feeling like an outsider that I identify with. I don't know, I'm terrified to make a blanket statement on this subject. Gender identity is so up in the air.
Erica Walker Adams will be performing a reading at the upcoming Baby Hair event, 8 p.m. September 10 at Deer Pile.
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.